Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Souls of White Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
From W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings

Handwritten draft of “The Souls of White Folk,” which was published in The Independent, August 18, 1910. Image from W.E.B. Du Bois Papers / UMass Amherst.
“The race problem is not insoluble if the correct answer is sought,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the original version of “The Souls of White Folks” in 1910. “lt is insoluble if the wrong answer is insisted upon, as it has been insisted upon for thrice a hundred years.”

The year proved to be a consequential one for Du Bois’s future. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was established in May, with Du Bois as the only African American on its thirty-member board of directors. He resigned from his position as a professor at Atlanta University and moved to New York City to serve both as the organization’s Director of Publications and Research and as the founding editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis. The first issue had a circulation of 1,000, four years later the base had grown to 35,000, and by the end of the decade some issues were selling in excess of 100,000 copies. Its success insured his editorial independence and control, and for twenty-five years the NAACP’s board meetings were dominated by clashes with conservative trustees over Du Bois’s political opinions and his management of the magazine, which was effectively the public face of the association.

“The Souls of White Folk,” a coda of sorts to Du Bois’s famous collection The Souls of Black Folk, appeared in an issue of the weekly political magazine The Independent soon after his arrival in New York. The brief essay was, in part, a rumination on how whiteness was a historically recent concept and how the principles espoused by the adherents of this “new religion” had infected politics, science, and theology. Du Bois was particularly appalled by the misuse of “scientific” theories to justify white supremacy. The following year he gave a speech at the Universal Races Congress in London, a gathering of scholars and scientists devoted to the goal of promoting racial harmony and combating racism in academia. Again writing for The Independent, Du Bois reported that “the one thing that this congress could do of inestimable importance [would be to] make clear the present state of scientific knowledge concerning the meaning of the term ‘race.’” The assumptions supporting the idea of white supremacy “have become the scientific sanction for widespread and decisive political action,” and he prophetically warned the attendees of the consequences of such beliefs.

As the decade progressed, Du Bois worried increasingly that the battle was being lost on several fronts; his “already grim state of mind verged on apocalyptic bitterness,” as biographer David Levering Lewis puts it. In 1915 he took an active role in the NAACP’s unsuccessful campaign against the film The Birth of the Nation for its derisive depictions of African Americans and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. He was concerned about the popularity of such books as The Passing of the Great Race, or the Racial Basis of European History (1916), a best seller by the zoologist Madison Grant, who espoused pseudoscientific theories on the superiority of Europeans and claimed that white people were heading toward “racial suicide” and domination by “inferior” races.

Then, in 1917, Du Bois decided that participation in America’s war effort was crucial to future political and economic gains and asked Crisis readers to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” He campaigned for the establishment of training camps for black army officers and urged men to work in war industries if they were barred from military service. After the war, however, black laborers and returning soldiers endured a series of violent disturbances, lynchings, and massacres that culminated in the “Red Summer” of 1919, including four days of riots and destruction of African American businesses in Washington, D.C., with 15 deaths and 150 wounded; thirteen days of mob violence and bombings in Chicago, during which 38 people were killed and more than 500 injured; and the Elaine Massacre in rural Arkansas, where hundreds of African Americans were murdered.

At the beginning of 1918, Du Bois began gathering material for his next book. One of the pieces he dusted off was “The Souls of White Folks,” which he overhauled and expanded, incorporating passages from an essay he had published the previous year in The Journal of Race Development, an academic publication on international relations. In the autobiographical essay that opened the new collection, he revealed that he finished the book, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, on his fiftieth birthday, February 23, 1918. It already had a publisher, but during the next two years, as the war ended and the United States seemed to be coming apart at the seams, the book was delayed while he tinkered with several of the pieces. To “The Souls of White Folks” he added postwar comments about the “orgy” of homeland violence against black citizens, about “the American crusade to make the ‘World Safe for Democracy’” that he had supported three years earlier, and about the Great War itself. We present this version of his essay, which appeared in 1920, as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Du Bois makes a series of passing references to contemporary incidents that would have been known to his readers. From May to July in 1917 white mobs in East St. Louis, Illinois, often abetted by police and state militia, rioted, killing at least 50 black residents and leaving approximately 6,000 homeless. In May 1917 Ell Persons, a black man accused of the murder of a white girl, was taken from deputies by a mob and burned at the stake before a crowd of thousands in Memphis. In Waco, Texas, in May 1916, Jesse Washington, convicted of murdering a white woman, was taken from the courtroom by a mob, tortured, and lynched. In Estill Springs, Tennessee, on February 8, 1918, Jim McIlherron was assaulted by three white men and shot them, killing two. A black clergyman who helped him escape was killed by a mob. McIlherron was later captured, tortured, and burned alive.

E. J. Glave served with Sir Henry Morton Stanley in Africa and wrote In Savage Africa, Or, Six Years of Adventure in Congo-Land (1892). John Hobbis Harris wrote several books on Africa, including Down in Darkest Africa (1912) and Africa: Slave or Free (1919). Askia Muhammad I was the third ruler of Songhai, largest of the empires of West Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Sonni Ali became Songhai’s first king in 1464.

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High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use. Teachers: Note that in his condemnation of bigotry in all its forms, Du Bois mentions several ethnic and racist slurs, including the n-word.